We are in the servants hall at Downton Abbey and all our favorite “Downstairs” characters are gathered together. Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is at his rightful position at the head of the table, his wife, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), by his side. Cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera), bad-boy butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) and lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt).
It’s as if they’ve been here, carrying on their daily routines, ever since the final credits rolled on the television series Downton Abbey more than three years ago. In reality, it’s October 2018 and we’re at England’s historical Ealing Studios visiting the set of this fall’s eagerly awaited Downton Abbey film spin-off.
So what brings us back into the Crawley household once again? Here’s what we managed to find out about the project after having a good old natter with the servants.
Bigger and better
Speaking about being back on set, Nichol confides, “It's almost the same, it’s all just slightly bigger, but it's like coming home.” And she’s right, Downton devotees will not be disappointed. Everything is going to appear just as it was — just on an even larger and grander scale for the big screen.
“I think it’s going to look really amazing,” Froggatt tells us. “Because there are some big scenes with everybody and some big set pieces which are beautiful and cinematic. I think anybody that loved the show will enjoy the movie.”
The cast members all admit it seems like hardly a day has gone by since they were all working together on the show, which ran for six years.
As McShera gushes, “We all see each other all the time anyway, so we're all friends. It doesn't feel that long ago. But obviously, it's really lovely to get together in this context again.”
A right royal fuss
If you’ve watched the trailer you will know that the familiar crunch of gravel on the driveway heralds the arrival of royal visitors to Downton. It is 1927 and King George V and his wife Queen Mary are coming to stay with Lord and Lady Grantham. Their impending visit has got everyone at Downton feeling emotional for various reasons — apart from the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith), of course, who is suitably unimpressed.
Butler Carson (the stalwart Jim Carter) is back at the house, despite having retired at the end of the show.
Carter, 71, explains: “We start the film with me just in retirement back at the cottage digging in the garden, fairly bored. I think he's always regretted retirement — he would happily carry on ‘til he dropped. ... So Carson is delighted, I think, when Lady Mary asks him to come back and take over.
“Carson is happy to be back but spends most of his time in a flap because he doesn't want to put a foot wrong — because obviously he adores royalty.”
Butler Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is also back for the royal visit, despite resigning to become a teacher. He decides his pupils can wait — he does not want to miss a chance to see their majesties.
“You have to remember that back in 1927, nobody would have seen the royals before, unless you were very lucky,” muses Doyle. “There's no TV footage or anything like that. It would have just been like seeing movie stars. So the prospect of meeting them would have been beyond exciting. And that's his story throughout this film — just the anticipation!”
But not everyone is riled up about the royal visit for positive reasons. The end of the TV show saw maid Daisy developing some strong politically liberal views when it came to class.
McShera admits: “Daisy feels like it's possibly a bit over the top — everything that's happening. It definitely lights up that side of her again, and she's thinking, ‘Is this fair?’”
Barrow’s wild night out
Another servant who is not so happy about the royal guests is former valet Thomas Barrow, who had been promoted to butler when Carson retired.
“Lady Mary doesn't quite trust Thomas as a butler. So she usurps him and brings back that old boy Mr. Carson, ruffling Thomas's feathers,” reveals James-Collier.
This leads to possibly the most exciting subplot of the film: Barrow, who has always struggled with his secret sexuality, discovering the emerging underground gay scene of the 1920s.
“In a typical Barrow way he thinks, ‘Sod you all I'll go and do something for me then!,’” James-Collier shares. “And then [he] ends up in one of the first Edwardian gay bars, and then ends up in the back of a police van and ends up in jail. If he gets prosecuted that's it — game over, thrown in jail, never work in service again. He would probably have ended up on the streets. So it's high stakes.”
Barrow is introduced to the secret underworld by the King’s valet, who James-Collier hints could be a love interest.
Despite being set in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense, James-Collier reveals his gay character still has relevance to fans in 2019.
“I'm flattered when I get letters from all over the world, from lads and girls who are coming out, or thinking to come out. Some of the were inspired by Thomas to come out to their families, which is the ultimate highest form of why we do this, you know, to move people. To get these really personal letters is very humbling for me.”
A revolution at Downton
In preparation for the King and Queen’s arrival, their royal servants descend on the abbey and try to take control. But the Downton Downstairs team rally round in response.
James-Collier lets slip, “Barrow escapes jail and then he becomes part of the Downton mutiny that rebel against how they’ve been trodden all over by His Majesty’s staff. So he joins in the Downton revolution. Back then there was a big tremendous sense of pride in your work. So they strive and work together to to get their jobs back, as it were.”
Despite Daisy being the one dabbling in Communism, it is in fact Anna Bates who ends up staging a coup against the royal household.
Carter reveals, “Oddly enough, and I think it is [writer] Julian Fellowes’ feminist movement — he's got Anna Bates as the one who leads the revolution. ... It’s strange because upstairs Lord Grantham sort of handed over the reins to Lady Mary and downstairs, Anna Bates seems to be leading the resistance of the royal household.”
Bring your wife to work day
With Carson out of retirement he is back working alongside his wife, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes.
Jim Carter’s real-life wife, Imelda Staunton, meanwhile, joins the cast of the movie as a visiting member of the aristocracy Lady Bagshaw. So what was that like?
“Well, because she's Upstairs and I’m Downstairs we never speak to each other,” says Carter. “We have a couple of days when we were in the dining room together, I refused to serve her any alcohol,” he jokes. “We traveled out to work together a couple of days. But seeing her across a crowded dining room was as exciting as it got.”
Attention to detail
Downton creator Julian Fellowes meticulously researches the historical events and cultural traditions of the era while writing the script. Royalty has really visited Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. But during filming, Fellowes’ friend Alastair Bruce of Crionaich is on set at all times to act as official Historical Advisor.
Bruce admits there are “plenty” of inaccuracies he has spotted within the script.
But he adds “In a way where the inaccuracies come, is where the director interprets what’s written, and I'm there to make sure that we keep to what Julian intended.
“As far as I'm concerned, when you look at a drama, your conscience is carried along by the narrative, but your subconscious is also terribly hungry. And it's by getting the behavior right, the mannerisms, right, and the protocols of the time correct, that you take people legitimately into time and then they can enjoy the story even more.”
Just a simple physical gesture by one of the actors can be an issue, Bruce reveals.
“We had a we had a scene a couple of days ago, between Lady Mary and Anna. And at one point, she puts her hand on Anna, and I said, ‘Please don't do that.’ Because people didn't touch each other in those days. I think it's very natural that people who live in today's time want to be very emotional. And I think it's important not to fight the truth of a time by trying to bring to it the protocols that are very natural today.”
While the film is meticulous in its efforts to be historically accurate, even the stars admit there are few holes in the plot in order to pack it into a two-hour film.
A glimpse behind the scenes of the #DowntonAbbeyFilm! See more from the cast and crew in Downton Abbey: The Official Film Companion, available in book stores on September 17th. pic.twitter.com/lbKYcXd37f— Downton Abbey (@DowntonAbbey) August 13, 2019
Carson originally retired because he developed palsy and his tremoring hands made it impossible to serve at the table without spilling wine all over the guests.
Carter laughs, “That's been miraculous! So retirement has obviously been beneficial. Either the writer forgot about it, or let’s say that the removal of stress probably cured his shaking hands.”
Just as butler Molesley has abandoned his teaching job, cook Mrs. Patmore seems to have completely forgotten her business venture running a Bed & Breakfast by the sea which she started at the end of the TV series.
Nichol admits, “That seems to have taken a slight sidestep because I guess it doesn't really fit in with what’s happening.”
Daisy had left Downton to live on her late husband’s family farm. But for the royal visit, she is back at the big house.
McShera bemoans, “There's no farm! We keep talking about our lovely farm and we imagine that she's still living there. But no, we don't actually get to see it. I think it's just cramming everything into film's really hard.”
Interviews conducted by Laura Hannam
Downton Abbey opens Sept. 20. Watch the trailer:
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